There was a moment that took place last week in this community that, if you didn’t witness it, you need to hear about it.
It happened Wednesday evening, Feb. 27, at a benefit for Jewish World Watch honoring outgoing Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
About 400 people attended the event, which started with a buffet in the courtyard of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Because both Zev, as everyone calls him, and Jewish World Watch (JWW) work in far-flung worlds, the attendees included movers and shakers in civic politics and philanthropy, as well as members of the international aid organization and a colorful group of artists and musicians. The event’s impresario, Craig Taubman, called the night “Global Soul.” The crowd looked like L.A., which is to say like the world.
We moved into the Bing Theater. There were musical performances and speeches, including a bit of both by Zev’s longtime friend Theodore Bikel. A video of Zev, charting his course from UCLA firebrand to Soviet Jewry activist to elected official, was screened. And Zev himself spoke movingly about why JWW’s work against genocide in Darfur and the Congo compelled him to agree, for the first time, to be so honored.
But the moment I’m referring to came when Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino rose to speak. Rabbi Schulweis, who will be 88 next month, has been ailing lately, and this was a rare public appearance. In his dark suit and tie, he looked more fragile than I had seen him, but less than I expected.
The rabbi shook off those who tried to help him to the podium. And when he spoke, he was back. His voice rang out deep, gravelly, prophetic. Here’s what Rabbi Schulweis said:
When Cain killed Abel, the Bible recorded it as the first murder in history. But the rabbis commented, “No, more than a single murder is involved.” Cain’s murder opened the jaws of genocide. For when Cain killed Abel, it wasn’t Abel alone that died. It was Abel’s posterity, his potential progeny — those unborn, unlived, unrealized, unmourned talents prematurely buried with Abel — poets, dancers, philosophers, artists, scientists. Our sages declared, “Who murders a single person, murders an entire world.” To the lifeless skulls we glimpse on the media, add the slaughtered promise of future generations.
We live in an era of multiple genocides. But no two holocausts are the same. There are differences in their history, demography, geography, theology. Many victims of mass murder are often different in their skin pigmentation, their liturgy, their language, their catechism.
Well, if holocausts are so different than mine, and the victims so different from my own, what have I to do with Darfur, Sudan, Chad and the Congo, and their sorrow? Let me alone. Let me alone to mind my own tragedies. Let me cry my own tears. Let me lick my own wounds. And not those of strangers. Is my people’s suffering not sufficient unto the day?
Against this insular narrow narcissism, the Jewish conscience of ethical monotheism confronts me with a penetrating question: “Is your blood redder than theirs? Is your pain deeper, your grief wider? Is your compassion so small, your heart so narrow, that it cannot include the agony of other peoples, and the need to respond to their torture and their torment?”
When my ancestors gave civilization the Ten Commandments, did they mean to prohibit the murder or theft or false witness only against Jews? Only against crimes committed against Judah or Israel or Jerusalem?
Never. Such provincialism would shatter the oneness of God into fragmented tribal deities. Shema Yisroel — the God of monotheism cannot be segregated in Heaven.
The God of Genesis, which inspired the daughter religions of Christianity and Islam, created the whole universe, an entire humanity. It is written, “Thou shalt not murder” — without qualification. Every human being, male and female, every human being created in God’s image is to be protected, defended and cared for — the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the vulnerable, the submerged communities, for you know the heart of the oppressed.
To avert my eyes from the torment of others, to stuff my ears from their shrieks, is to deny the kinship of human suffering and my own humanity.
Am I created to be only a bystander, a passive voyeur gazing at the dying of human dignity? What defines the meaning of my existence?
The philosopher defined existence by declaring, “I think, therefore I am.” The existentialist wrote, “I feel, therefore I am.” The poet recited, “I imagine, therefore I am.”
But our tradition declared, “Because you suffer, therefore I am.” For if you suffer and I pretend deafness, muteness or paralysis, I am reduced to a yawn, a breath, vanity of vanities, a cipher floating in the wind.
The rabbi finished to applause. And the applause built as the words started to sink in. The words were an honor to Zev, but a charge to us. And while the rabbi stood, a bit stooped, holding onto the sides of the podium, all 400 of us stood, too. We rose to our feet — all races, nations and religions, and kept applauding, unwilling to let him go.
But our tradition declared, “Because you suffer, therefore I am.”
It’s important to experience that moment, if only in these printed words. Because that moment is who we are.